Tuesday, December 31, 2013
The emancipation of the slaves was the single most dramatic and far-reaching action taken by the Lincoln administration.
The action evolved gradually; Lincoln was always mindful that preserving the Union was his highest priority. If he could win the war by freeing all the slaves, some of them, or none at all, he would take whatever route would lead to victory.
Throughout his public life, Abraham Lincoln had consistently opposed the institution of slavery and advocated policies to restrict it from spreading into the western territories. His views fit comfortably with the new Republican Party and its antislavery roots; thus, his election as president in 1860 set off the first wave of secession.
Responding to the crisis in his first inaugural address, Lincoln assured Southerners that it was not the intention of the Federal government to interfere with slavery where it existed. He pointed out that, as president, he had no power to do so, asserting that under the Constitution, the national government could “never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States.”
When war came—only weeks after Lincoln had assumed office—his stated objective was restoration of the Union, and he refused to take any action against slavery, not only because he had no constitutional authority to do so, but because he feared that doing so would push Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland into the Confederacy.
Thus, in August 1861, when General John C. Fremont attempted to emancipate all slaves owned by Confederate sympathizers in Missouri, Lincoln overruled him.
He did the same in May 1862, when General David Hunter declared that all slaves under his area of control in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were free. But the president urged border-state governors to accept some form of gradual, compensated emancipation for their slaves (in 1862, Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, and Maryland and Missouri would emancipate slaves before the war ended), and he explored the feasibility of colonization for freedmen, a plan almost universally resisted by free blacks.
By 1862, it was apparent that predictions of a brief war had been wrong. The Confederacy’s resistance remained firm. What kept thousands of Southern soldiers on the battlefield were slaves working on plantations to feed the army, and, in some places, building defensive fortifications.
Black and white abolitionists had been pointing this out from the start of the war and were even quoting Southern newspapers on the subject. For example, the November 6, 1861, edition of the Montgomery Advertiser noted: “The institution of slavery in the South alone enables her to place in the field a force much larger in proportion to her white population than the North. . .. The institution is a tower of strength to the South, particularly at the present crisis, and our enemies will be likely to find that the ‘moral cancer’ about which their orators are so fond of prating, is really one of the most effective weapons employed against the Union by the South.”
Thus, freeing slaves in the Confederacy became part of Lincoln’s war strategy. Emancipation was also a valid war aim because of its diplomatic ramifications. By transforming the war into a crusade against slavery, Lincoln could all but ensure that British and French diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy would not be forthcoming.
Despite the advantages that emancipation would bring to the Union, it remained a delicate issue in the North. There were fears that hordes of freedmen would overrun Northern states, take jobs from white workers, and strain local resources. Even Northerners who opposed slavery were not prepared to welcome an influx of black neighbors.
The prevailing attitude among whites—even those who were antislavery—was one of racial superiority, and many soldiers in the Union army who were eager to fight for the Union were not eager to fight for emancipation. There were also concerns over the president’s constitutional authority to emancipate the slaves.
But as the war progressed—and as Congress passed confiscation acts aimed at Southern property, including slaves—Lincoln devised an approach based on his constitutional authority to exercise presidential war powers.
He carefully crafted the Emancipation Proclamation as a narrowly focused, legalistic document designed to withstand legal challenge. The president later explained: “I felt the measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation.”
In June 1862, Lincoln had completed drafting his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He presented it to the cabinet the following month but, on the advice of Secretary of State Seward, he awaited a positive military development before releasing it.
Issuing the document following battlefield defeats in the summer of 1862 would have cast the proclamation as a desperate and meaningless gesture. His opportunity came in the wake of the Union victory at Antietam on September 17, 1862. The battle ended the Confederate invasion of Maryland and forced Lee’s army to retreat to Virginia.
On September 22, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In this document, the president gave the rebellious states 100 days to return to the Union and to adopt immediate or gradual abolition with the assurance that plans for voluntary colonization of former slaves would continue. Otherwise, Lincoln declared that slaves in any state still in rebellion would then be “forever free.”
No Confederate state returned to the Union. On New Year’s Day, 1863, Lincoln signed the final Emancipation Proclamation, which differed considerably from the first document.
The final proclamation, “a fit and necessary war measure,” declared freedom for slaves only in rebellious sections of the country, but not in the border states or in Tennessee and parts of Virginia and Louisiana, most of which were under Union control. The proclamation also included a provision for enlisting former slaves in the Union army.
Because Lincoln’s authority extended only to the seizure of property of those in rebellion (no proclamation could invalidate the legal ownership of slaves by masters in the loyal slave states), tens of thousands of slaves would have to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in December 1865, to gain their freedom.
“It will be seen that the President only makes provision for the emancipation of a part of an injured race, and that the Border States and certain parts of the rebel States are excepted from the relief offered to others by this most important document,” stated theChristian Recorder, an African Methodist Episcopal church newspaper in Philadelphia.
Nonetheless, the newspaper continued, “[W]e believe those who are not immediately liberated will be ultimately benefitted by this act, and that Congress will do something for those poor souls who will still remain in degradation. But we thank God and President Lincoln for what has been done, ‘and take courage.'”
Although the proclamation had no instantaneous effect on slaves outside the reach of the Union armies, it did immediately transform the war. The war to preserve the Union also became a moral crusade to end slavery, and that purpose made it highly unlikely that Britain could ever be compelled to enter the war on the side of the South.
The proclamation also resolved the legal status of slaves who had claimed their freedom behind the security of Union lines, and it undermined the Confederacy as slaves fled to the North in greater numbers and joined the Union army. Tens of thousands more worked for the army as civilian laborers—nurses, cooks, and teamsters.
Beyond the military consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation, surely none appreciated the meaning of the document so much as African Americans.
On January 1, 1863, free blacks held celebratory meetings in cities throughout the North.
Henry Turner, pastor of the Israel Bethel (A.M.E.) Church i n Washington, D.C., captured the excitement of the day:
“Seeing such a multitude of people in and around my church, I hurriedly went up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom could be printed . . . and squeezed myself through the dense crowd that was waiting for the paper. The first sheet run off with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us, but some active young man got possession of it and fled. T h e next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet from the press was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and off I went for life and death. Down Pennsylvania [Avenue] I ran as for my life, and when the people saw me coming with the paper in my hand they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening.”